Howard Kurtz discusses Tiger Woods, Stephanopoulos, Climategate, more

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Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, December 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, Dec. 7, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Kurtz has been the Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

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Washington, DC: Howard,

I'll admit that I'm not a TV network exec, but I really don't see how Stephanopoulos is a good fit on "GMA." I've seen him do his fill-in work, and he is not the best at the softer news the show covers. Maybe he'll get better, but I don't see why he would want to give up "This Week" for "GMA"? What am I missing?

Howard Kurtz: For one thing, ABC really wants him to do it. For another, GMA is an incredible platform. And the bigger salary can't hurt. Stephanopoulos definitely had reservations, which is why the negotiations have focused in part on reshaping the program in a hard-news direction to fit his strengths. It's not an ideal fit, and Diane Sawyer is a tough act to follow, but Stephanopoulos has surprised the doubters before.

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Arlington, Va.: Golf Digest's January cover is "10 Tips Obama can take from Tiger." This struck me as very awkward timing for Tiger to be giving advice to Obama, but then I wondered if it is part of some clever public relations campaign underway to rehabilitate luster in the Tiger brand. If so, I am not sure it will work, especially since I read that some of the "other women" are now peddling their stories to the media.

Howard Kurtz: Not that clever. The Golf Digest cover was clearly in the works before the car accident that led to Tiger's personal life being splashed across the media landscape.

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Washington, D.C.: Towards the end of today's profile of Adam Moss, you referred to Mr. Moss' "boyfriend of 25 years." Was the term "boyfriend" one used by Mr. Moss, or is it your term"? Frankly, the term seems to demean a long-term relationship. And coming from a writer who has publicly criticized his newspaper as too supportive of gay marriage rights, I am skeptical about its use in the profile.

washingtonpost.com: Bright lights, bigger city at New York Magazine

Howard Kurtz: I actually talked to Adam about that. He said boyfriend or partner was find, that he himself didn't know what term to use.

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Philadelphia: The so-called leaked or stolen e-mail messages regarding the climate issues: When do the newspapers decide that the phrase "stolen" would be used to describe the e-mails. If the e-mail messages were from a drug company, would they always identified as leaked as opposed to "stolen"? Did did you see the response from Clark Hoyt from the NY Times regarding this?

washingtonpost.com: Stolen E-Mail, Stoking the Climate Debate

Howard Kurtz: Yes, I saw the Times ombudsman's column and he made some good points, but I still disagree with the paper's initial decision not to publish the details. The e-mails are stolen because they were obtained by a computer hacker. You'd call them leaked if someone on the inside gave them to a journalist.

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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright: A well-known sports columnist/TV talking head has been saying this past week that this is really the first time that "modern tabloidization" (i.e. TMZ and blogs) has hit the sports world and stuck. (Jordan's allegedly adultery never seemed to make it out of the tabloids.)

Would you agree (the only thing I think comes close is A-Rod a year or two ago) and do sports fans (and perhaps more importantly players) need to come to grips that this genie cannot be put back in the bottle?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the Kobe Bryant story was huge, but that was different in that sexual assault charges were brought (and Bryant was eventually vindicated). Tiger Woods is one of the most famous people in the world. It's not realistic to expect that he would somehow be immune to the scrutiny of such outlets as TMZ, the National Enquirer and the New York Post (which today says the number of alleged mistresses is up to 9). His strategy of remaining silent - and ultimately apologizing for unspecified transgressions - was a disaster. I don't know whether this will change the standards for sports reporting, in that few athletes are in the Tiger stratosphere. Also, sports pages have been somewhat reticent about this story and several sports columnists have been sympathetic to Woods.

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New York, NY: On your show on Sunday, you said that most media didn't pay much attention to the Baucus sex scandal is evidence of liberal bias. But since most media virtually ignored the Ensign sex scandal, why is it evidence of anything?

Howard Kurtz: I said on "Reliable Sources" that it left news organizations open to charges of liberal bias. And it's not true that most of the media ignored the John Ensign scandal. The New York Times came back with a detailed front-page story on whether Ensign and former aide Doug Hampton (whose wife had slept with the senator) violated lobbying laws after the couple lost their jobs. And "Nightline" recently aired an investigation featuring an interview with Hampton.

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And the bigger salary can't hurt. : And bigger audience, exposure.

Howard Kurtz: For Stephanopoulos, yes. Ten hours a week, as opposed to one hour on Sunday morning.

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Florida Chick: all this stern grumbling about how Stephanopoulos needs "harder" news - bull. It is not as if the entire second hour is Easter bonnets and pie contests.

I have seen breast cancer and other health news, fitness, personal finance and career advice, plus family features, education and travel in the second hour of GMA.

Seems sexist to me - what he is really saying is "keep that woman-oriented crap away from me."

Is he too cool to discuss picking a good summer camp or helping elder relatives with depression, for instance?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's fair. It's more a question of whether George wants to be chatting up movie stars and whipping up dishes with celebrity chefs - not that there's anything wrong with that. But he's a former White House aide steeped in politics, and it clearly doesn't play to his strengths.

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Anonymous: On Tiger Woods: You have been in this business for a while, so I am wondering if there is anything you see that he can do to put things right. Perhaps a full confession on Good Morning America, followed by a 12-step rehabilitation program? Or is it too late, and should he continue with the current plan of silence.

Howard Kurtz: I don't know about the rehab, but I don't see how he puts this behind him until he sits down for an interview with someone. What's he going to do, continue to play in golf tournaments and refuse to speak to the press forever? His family-man image has been changed forever, no matter what he does, but at some point he has to stop the bleeding.

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several sports columnists have been sympathetic to Woods: There's nothing worse than "standing by your man" and having the story get worse. Ask the supporters in the Oval Office of WJC in his Monica period.

We should be sympathetic to the supporters, not to the malefactors. They are the real victims.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I don't think they're saying Tiger is a saint. But it comes down to whether sports figures should be covered only for their athletic exploits and their private lives declared off limits. I don't see how, in 2009, you keep them in that kind of bubble.

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Ensign Scandal: The detailed NYT front-page story and the Nightline piece came months after the initial revelations. The Baucus scandal is 3 days old. I still don't see how this is evidence of liberal bias.

Howard Kurtz: On June 17, The Washington Post put this story on the front page:

"Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), considered a rising star in the Republican Party, yesterday acknowledged an extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer who is married to one of the lawmaker's former legislative aides."

And there were lots of follow-up pieces. Today the only follow-up on Baucus is a critical op-ed piece by Ruth Marcus.

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GMA: I certainly hope George accepts and they make GMA more serious. I would LOVE to have a news option to listen to in the morning; the other TV broadcasts are well nigh unwatchable, and while I enjoy NPR's stories, Steve Inskeep just gets more insufferable by the day.

Howard Kurtz: I'd also like to watch a newsier GMA. If so, it will be an interesting experiment. But ABC has to worry about reaching the broadest possible audience, and the morning-show formula of softer fare in the second hour has been pretty successful.

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Somerdale, N.J.: Howie,

Politico's business model looks for hits, links and buzz -- do they therefore cater to their audience which seems to be the inside the beltway center right crowd? I base this on their Internet poll results which always have the majority for the right of center choice. Also if they are trying to get on Drudge doesn't in make sense for them to have a rightward tilt to their stories?

Howard Kurtz: I don't buy the right-of-center argument at all. Aimed at inside the Beltway? Maybe. But its online traffic indicates that millions of people beyond the D.C. are also reading the site.

Meanwhile, Politico's Jim VandeHei has just been named to the Pulitzer Prize board, the first representative of a primarily online organization.

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Philadelphia: As the expert on "spin," what are your thoughts on how Tiger Woods handled it? Was retreating in silence in a mistake that kept the story going? If Tiger Woods had held a press conference stating he lost control of his car, apologized for his driving mistake, and that he was willing to meet with the police and pay whatever fines would be assessed, would the press have relegated this to the back pages and this story might have gone away?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think the story would have gone away, but I think Tiger would have garnered more sympathy in the court of public opinion. As it is, a new mistress or two -- "birdies," as the New York Post calls them - seems to emerge every day while Woods remains silent. He doesn't even have a spokesman defending him. So the stories are largely one-sided.

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Anonymous: I think the Tiger affair should force sports writers to reevaluate how they cover their subjects, just as political writers have taken the gloves off about politicians. I remember seeing Chris Dodd, Ted Kennedy and John Tower acting up in the Washington bars with no coverage. The Tower confirmation hearings seem to have forced a change, and there have been stories since about politicians with drinking problems. If only half the tabloid stories about Tiger's activities are true, he seems to have a serious drinking problem with stories of $1500 bar bills as he chased barmaids. Is it too much to hope to see honest coverage of sports figures?

Howard Kurtz: I think it's already happening. Look at the steroids scandal. Many sportswriters wondered how these baseball guys were bulking up, but only later did we learn that McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, Clemens, Bonds and A-Rod were using banned substances. The era of unvarnished hero worship has passed.

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ABC: I think I missed it - who will replace George on This Week? And what was that gossip about Chris Cuomo leaving GMA?

Howard Kurtz: We don't know about "This Week," other than that Stephanopoulos has pushed to keep doing both jobs, at least for awhile. As for Chris Cuomo, I've reported that ABC executives want to keep him at the network but are already doing screen tests with several possible replacements for the GMA news anchor job. Cuomo, meanwhile, is being courted by other networks.

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Max Baucus vs John Ensign: I'm from Montana and Max Baucus has never offered himself up as a paragon of virtue nor has he run as a "values" candidate. Can you say the same about John Ensign? Seems to me the difference is whether the politician is being hypocritical on his campaign - if you are the "values" candidate, then you shouldn't be involved in the "nonvalues" arena. Also, Max was separated from his wife at the time he became involved with his girlfriend, while Ensign wasn't. There are differences between the two that should determine the coverage, after all.

Howard Kurtz: There are differences in every situation. Baucus has always been a serious-minded legislator. But whether you've run as a "family values" politician or not doesn't make it okay to push your girlfriend for a top federal job, particularly one in law enforcement. They are both lucky that she withdrew rather than becoming the U.S. attorney in Montana.

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Nashville: Do you think traditional sexism in the media regarding women as one-size-fits-all, low-wage birdbrains fixated on fashion, food and motherhood has alienated females of all ages?

When the media is run by men for the benefit of men, we get a one-sided view and that's dark-age journalism.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's the stereotype. Keep in mind that the current GMA co-hosts are Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, both women who have something to say about the content of the program. Keep in mind that there's a higher proportion of stay-at-home moms (this is not a knock at them) watching morning television in the 8 a.m. hour rather than rushing off to work.

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Lizard Island: Did SNL's send-up of the Salahis in the cold open put a fork in them?

Howard Kurtz: It probably just adds to their fame, or infamy.

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Rocklin, CA: Howard, tell me how it is possible for TV and written press pundits to be experts on every subject. They expound on the economy, religion, war, foreign relations, pop culture, and any subject submitted to them or generated from their own minds.

Are they geniuses or "idiot savants." Why they can even look or hear a person and know from their tone or stance what that person is thinking.

Does anyone ever question their knowledge or demand corrections when they are so often wrong.

Howard Kurtz: Sure. They get criticized and second-guessed all the time. But being wrong doesn't seem to affect their standing.

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Vienna: "only later did we learn that McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, Clemens, Bonds and A-Rod were using banned substances." This points to the lack of actual journalistic reporting in the sports world. Rumors abounded for MANY years that a lot of these guys were juiced, and yet no reporter could uncover ANYthing until some actual law-enforcement people started investigating. If this was the tight-lipped world of intelligence it might be understandable, but sports? Please. To many sports "journalists" want to be smart-mouthing ESPN anchors, not actual reporters.

Howard Kurtz: To be fair, that's an awfully hard thing to prove without solid evidence such as a test result. You can't go with that kind of story without having it nailed down. I remember Katie Couric asking Alex Rodriguez on "60 Minutes" whether he had ever used performance enhancing drugs, and he flat out lied.

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New York: Why isn't the standard (for ethical reporting, not libel) whether athletes sell their image by promoting products?

If an athlete wants to earn his salary playing his sport, and no more, he's made no representations as to his character and should be able to keep his private life private. But if he pockets millions (or billions) by suggesting, "Buy this, because I recommend it (and look what a nice guy I am)" then he's wide open.

Howard Kurtz: Fair point. And how many athletes are there these days who don't at least want to do endorsement deals? That's how Tiger became a near-billionaire.

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New Mexico: You spent a great deal of time discussing the "gate crashers" and Tiger Woods on yesterday's Reliable Sources. Is this really news? Or is this the media's way of saying "we don't really want to do news".

The issue with the gate crashers is security at the White House not that these people want a reality show. As for Tiger Woods, who cares? I am much more interested in the plans to increase the war in Afghanistan, the move to restrict a woman's access to legal health care, the condition of our schools. How do we get the media to cover important matters?

Howard Kurtz: I don't understand this concept of "it's not news" unless it involves health care, war or the economy. Tiger Woods is one of the most famous people on the planet. His image is imploding before our eyes. Millions and millions of people are interested in this saga. There's no reason for journalists to be apologetic about it.

As for the party crashers, one of the main questions I raised was why this was still news really two weeks later. The first couple of days, of course there were legitimate concerns about security and the performance of the Secret Service. But that's now become a fig leaf for the continuing stories about the checkered history of the Salahis, the lawsuits and debts and brazen nature of the couple.

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State College, Pa.: How long until Tiger appears on Oprah?

Howard Kurtz: That would be one possible venue. Or maybe he sits down with a high-profile ESPN reporter. For the moment, though, Tiger is still in the bunker, apparently hoping that all this will blow over.

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Dallas: What do you think about the Dallas News decision to have editors report directly to the advertising department?

Howard Kurtz: I find it, well, inexplicable. I've read the explanations and still think it's really troubling. Editors these days can't be unaware of the needs of the advertising department. But the idea that they would directly report to advertising executives strikes me as no way to run a newsroom, or to convince readers that you're not just bowing to advertisers.

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"Buy this, because I recommend it (and look what a nice guy I am)" : But that's not what they're saying, what sells stuff. They're saying "Buy it cuz I'm rich and popular with the ladies and you'll be too if you buy this Lexus." Nice guy? Who buys a luxury car to be considered nice? It's all about power and sex.

Howard Kurtz: Maybe, plus success. Success sells. But the nice-guy image - a man who cares about his wife and children - is embedded in there somewhere. Tiger has always carefully controlled his image, in part by limiting access to the press. But now he's in a situation that he can't control.

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Los Angeles, Ca.: How long before those sponsors bail on Tiger?

My boyfriend gives them a week.

Howard Kurtz: So far, Nike and company seem to be standing by their man. But that was before the Alleged Mistress count hit 9.

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Hampton: How do you know the emails were hacked and not leaked? What exactly would hackers have to gain? Hackers tend to be commercial enterprises -- stealing credit card info and the like, or private blackmail-able info. Why do you believe they were hacked? Was it just for fun? Seems... implausible.

But the media is promoting that story, right?

Howard Kurtz: By hacked I simply mean that someone who did not have authorization penetrated the e-mail accounts of the scientists involved.

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I don't get this "it's not news" : It doesn't affect Americans' lifes. What Tiger did doesn't affect me, improve my life, threaten my safety. Health care, the war, do.

Howard Kurtz: Feel free to skip the stories, then. But media organizations can't simply ignore them because a portion of their audience doesn't care. I would argue that Tiger's story transcends sports because of his worldwide celebrity.

Thanks for the chat, folks.

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Media Backtalk transcripts archive

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